Advancing universalism in neoliberal times? Basic income, workfare and the politics of conditionality

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Workfare is an exemplar of neoliberal welfare reform generating precarity. In response, critics have sought to advance a politics of universalism, through either a return to social democracy or the embrace of a universal basic income. Yet, these responses invoke different understandings of universalism. This paper explores the politics of universalism in the context of neoliberal reform to benefit systems. Using Australia as a case study, it applies a variegated understanding of neoliberalism to identify two distinct reform trajectories for family payments and unemployment benefits. While appearing to follow a common template of liberalization, in practice each trajectory fostered distinct social outcomes and political dynamics. I argue the more inclusive restructuring of family benefits reflected the influence of social movement pressure intersecting with an increasingly pro-competition and technocratic state, producing new, hybrid, patterns of universal social provision similar to forms of basic income. However, in reflecting on these political dynamics I highlight how the mobilization of universalism is contingent on existing welfare institutions, suggesting dangers in applying these lessons more broadly.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)589-603
Number of pages15
JournalCritical Sociology
Issue number4-5
Early online date25 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020


  • basic income
  • feminism
  • Neoliberalism
  • political economy
  • social policy
  • welfare state
  • work and economy


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